Ducks and Geese are among the most diverse and fascinating creatures there is. They inhabit every continent except Antarctica. There are so many of these birds here on our coast that it is simply amazing. They have such a variety in shape, color, and size. The pacific northwest has many types of ducks and geese that never leave our shores, they stay year round and many others are here for part of the year.
Ducks, geese, and swans can be found wherever there’s water, from the tropics right up to the arctic north, when I worked in the Arctic, I was always fascinated by how many types of waterfowl nest there.
You can find the American Wigeon here on our shores, it is a very pretty duck. The male has a bright white flank and a white line on its crown, a dark green patch behind his eyes and a light grayish blue bill with a black tip. The female is a dull gray to light brown in color with the blue bill and its black tip.
The American Wigeon breeds in western North America as far as Alaska and returns to the southern portions of British Columbia including all of the gulf islands. Their nests are built on the ground in a depression lined with down and grass. The nest is concealed in tall weeds and grasses often far from the water. The female lays up to 12 cream colored eggs and incubates them for about 25 days. The young leave the nest soon after hatching and will have fledged by 8 weeks of age.
Immature birds resemble adult females. They have the white spot between the bill and eyes, as well as the prominent round ear patch but the feathers on the upper body of them are darker than those of adult females. The immature birds slowly gain their adult plumage over their first 3 years.
Harlequins spent most of their life in coastal marine areas. During winter, these ducks gather at traditional sites along the coast to feed in the winter seas. But in the spring they leave the coast and head up rivers and streams to breed.
The Mallard is distributed throughout North America, Europe, and Asia and has been introduced to many other parts of the globe. Mallards are essentially freshwater ducks, although many winter on our coastal shores.
The nesting site is normally on the ground, the nest is little more than a depression lined with bits of plants, grass, weeds or other material close at hand. It is usually hidden in thick grass cover. The eggs, which may vary in color from dull green to almost white, are laid daily, up to 15 are laid
Incubation does not start until she has laid the last egg, this is so that all the ducklings will hatch at approximately the same time. The female uses down from her belly to line the nest. This not only helps keep the eggs warm but hides the eggs from crows, ravens, and other predators, which are quick to find unprotected eggs. The female will incubate the eggs for around 28 days. The ducklings emerge as handsome little balls of down. They are mostly brown with some yellow on them. As soon as the ducklings are hatched, the female leads them to the nearest water.
The young gradually lose they’re down and grow their feathers. In about 10 weeks they have assumed a plumage that is much like that of the female. and are on their own. The males remain with the females for the first 10 days of incubation. After that, they move to larger ponds and lakes, where they lose their breeding plumage. All their flight feathers are shed at once, and for about a month the birds cannot fly. They keep a low profile until their new feathers have grown in.
When the females have left their broods, they too gather on bigger ponds to molt. They also become flightless, but the new plumage they assume is little different from the one they have shed. In the late fall the young aquire the plumage of their respective sexes. The males, however, may take up to 2 years to get their full adult plumage.
Mute Swans are about 1.5 meters long, with a wingspan of over 2 meters. They are found all over the Pacific Northwest. Mute swans inhabit ponds, lakes, marshes, rivers, and estuaries. These swans eat marine vegetation, grass, insects, mollusks, worms, small fish and frogs. They use their long necks to forage beneath the water’s surface for food.
They have no real voice but they are capable of making snorting sounds and hissing. These large birds are usually calm but can become aggressive when threatened. They are very capable of defending themselves and their territories with their large wings, beaks, and necks.
Mute swan eggs take around 40 days to hatch. The newly hatched cygnets are a small grayish brown bundle of fluff. Mute swans are good parents, taking good care of the young and they can sometimes be seen with very young cygnets riding on their backs.
The mute swan is a bird that was introduced by European immigrants. This is the swan that typically is featured in artwork and folklore. Mute swans are very beautiful to look at but are an undesirable exotic species that harass native waterfowl and uproot large quantities of aquatic vegetation. Almost all North American breeding populations of mute swans were established by the escape or accidental release of captive birds.
The Pacific flyway runs along our coast and the spring and fall migrations are just wonderful to observe. Migration of these birds is largely a learned behavior passed down from generation to generation. Ducks and geese navigate the way that other birds do, by using solar and celestial compasses along with an awareness of the earths magnetic fields.
In most other bird species, adults and juveniles migrate separately. Ducks and geese migrate in family groups for the southbound flight. This is when the young ones learn the path, the good stopover sites along with the good wintering grounds. Ducks tend to separate over the winter and head north by forming new groups. The hens have a strong need to return to their birthplace. Males do not and will simply follow the hens, as they mate with new hens each season, this will take them to a different site every year.
The geese, on the other hand, take several years to mature and quite often the family remains together for several migrations. Males pick their mates on the wintering grounds and usually mate for life.
The population of some geese is increasing at a very fast rate and causing problems on the nesting grounds. Snow geese are an example of this. An estimated 6 million birds now nest in Hudson Bay, they have become the most populated bird in the north. However other waterfowl populations are decreasing due to the disappearing wetlands and other migratory habitat and it is up to us to protect and increase remaining habitats for all migratory species.
These birds are incredible to observe and to see huge flocks heading north is a wonderful sight, all you need is a pair of field glasses, a camera and a notebook to record your sightings, a good pair of boots and a warm jacket and you’re on your way to seeing the wonders of the migrating birds. But be careful, you might become addicted, l have.